West Virginia park officials object to gun bill

The sign that prohibits guns in Coonskin Park hasn’t been moved to the new entrance off of Henry C. “Hoppy Shores Drive.

It’s still by the old gate, looking out at the barbed wire fence that separates the park and the National Guard Base.

And a bill is moving through the Legislature to get the park to remove that sign.

“We’ve known what’s coming, Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission director Jeff Hutchinson said. “We’ve known for a year.

The bill, SB 254, states that County Parks Commissions will be forbidden from prohibiting firearms on their property. It’s similar to a bill that failed last session.

“This bill, it’s specifically for us, Hutchinson said. “Because we had the right to promulgate rules. That was the loophole.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, who didn’t return a call for comment.

In most counties, the county commission is in charge of the parks. Because the parks commission is a separate entity in Kanawha County, under law it was allowed to set its own rules.

Keith Morgan, the president of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League, thinks of this bill as simply cleaning up the gray areas of the law that already exists prohibiting counties from regulating firearms in parks.

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That argument came to a head last year, when Morgan spoke in front of the Kanawha County Commission saying that the commission should override the park commission’s rule.The discussion didn’t generate much beyond threats of lawsuits, but the parks commission did vote to stop issuing citations to people who came into the park with guns and instead ask them to leave.

“We went so far as to take away any punishment, Tackett said.

With the law moving through the legislature (it has already passed the Senate and is in the House Judiciary Committee), the parks commission has come out against the bill.

“People have to have a little bit of common sense, Allen Tackett, the director of the parks commission said. “I’m as much of a defender of Second-Amendment rights as anyone in the world, but there’s some places where guns don’t belong.

Tackett was a former adjutant general in West Virginia and served in the military on special forces units. He said that he’s shot so many times that he can hardly hear anymore.

“We’re just trying to protect kids to make sure kids don’t get hurt while they’re at the park, Tackett said.

Tackett referenced the fact that people are allowed to drink beer at the park and said that alcohol and guns don’t mix well, especially when kids are around.

But Morgan said guns should be allowed in the park so that people can protect themselves.

“Criminals can carry guns there, why would a law-abiding citizen be the only one there without the means to defend themselves? Morgan said.

Guns aren’t completely foreign to Coonskin Park. In the 1960s, the park put in a skeet range that allowed people to shoot at fake gray pigeons, which lasted until it burned down in 1990.

But the rule preventing people from bringing firearms into the park has been on the gate as long as Tackett and Hutchinson can remember.

Even though the parks commission doesn’t support the bill, they’ve accepted that it’s probably going to become law.

“I knew immediately when I saw this that they were going to pass it, Tackett said.

And, if the law passes, the parks commission will have to take down their sign and obey.

“We will follow the state law, Hutchinson said. “We don’t have to like it, we don’t have to agree with it, there’s nothing we can do about it.

But, with more bills expanding the use of firearms in the state, Hutchinson is prepared to be vigilant.

“Do I believe that Coonskin Park will become like the Wild West? Hutchinson said. “No. But I do know my officers will be on high alert.”

A sign that says, “No firearms or weapons allowed in park,” sits near the old entrance to Coonskin Park that is now blocked by fencing, on Coonskin Drive in Charleston.

Under SB 254, which is similar to a bill that failed last session, county parks commissions would be forbidden from prohibiting firearms on their property.

Reach Daniel Desrochers at dan.desrochers@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @drdesrochers on Twitter. Charleston Gazette-Mail